As a grinning Prime Minister Hun Sen shook hands with U.S. President Barack Obama and received his first invite for an official trip to Washington over the weekend, opposition leader Sam Rainsy said he was headed to Europe seeking to place diplomatic pressure on the premier.
Mr. Rainsy has not set foot in Cambodia since November 5 and faces at least two years in prison for a years-old defamation conviction if he returns, and possibly a further 17 years with the courts threatening new forgery and incitement charges in relation to a Facebook post.
Mr. Rainsy surrendered his chance to confront the seemingly political cases head-on—in what would have been a first for the opposition leader—last week when he decided not to return on advice that he seek diplomatic pressure for a free passage.
Yet Mr. Hun Sen has since shown little sign he is feeling any pressure to allow Mr. Rainsy’s return, and any such strains were alleviated in Kuala Lumpur yesterday afternoon as Mr. Obama announced he had invited Asean’s 10 leaders to the U.S. next year.
“I’m pleased they accepted and I look forward to continuing our work,” Mr. Obama said in his closing remarks at the 27th Asean Summit, insisting close ties with Asian nations are “absolutely critical” to U.S. security, according to Agence France-Presse.
The summit was held after a week of barb-trading between the U.S. and China over maritime tensions in the South China Sea. Mr. Hun Sen, one of China’s closest allies in the region and a repeated target of U.S. sanctions over his 30 years as premier, had never been invited for an official visit to the U.S.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan welcomed the invitation, saying it demonstrated Mr. Rainsy was fighting a losing battle to secure diplomatic support for his cause.
“It is not first time that when Sam Rainsy has problems, he runs away and does this, but whether they pay attention to him, that’s another issue,” Mr. Eysan said.
“Even if he goes to ask them and then hugs their arms and legs, they will not follow him,” he added. “If his words were effective, why would the U.S. president invite Hun Sen to visit the U.S.?”
A U.S. State Department official told the U.S. Senate on Thursday that recent events in Cambodia were “a cause for grave concern” and “recall a more authoritarian period in Cambodia’s recent past,” mirroring observations put forward by the CNRP.
In the past month, two CNRP lawmakers have been beaten up by pro-CPP protesters outside the National Assembly, while the army was rallied in an ultimately successful campaign to remove CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha as the parliament’s vice president.
Mr. Sokha’s ouster, which the CNRP has said was unconstitutional, preceded the arrest warrant being issued for Mr. Rainsy in relation to a conviction handed down in 2011 and then Mr. Rainsy’s ouster from the National Assembly at the hands of CPP lawmakers on November 16.
In an email on Saturday, Mr. Rainsy, who is in Manila, said he still has no plans to return to Phnom Penh and was instead traveling to Europe this week to put diplomatic pressure on Mr. Hun Sen after the month of political turmoil.
“The European Parliament may adopt a resolution on Cambodia next week. I will be in Brussels on Tuesday, November 24,” Mr. Rainsy wrote, reiterating that he believed that Mr. Hun Sen had made tactical errors in his recent fight against the CNRP.
“Law violations are so blatant, [as] the CPP resorts to dirtier and dirtier tricks. As a result of their shockingly undemocratic behaviour they are losing an increasing number of supporters and sympathizers in Cambodia and all over the world,” Mr. Rainsy wrote.
The opposition leader could not be reached on Sunday. The significance of Mr. Hun Sen’s friendly handshake with Mr. Obama and the invitation to Washington, however, would not be lost on Mr. Rainsy, who has long used the prime minister’s desire for global legitimacy as one of his main political weapons.
“This represents a slap on the face of Hun Sen,” Mr. Rainsy said in January 2014 when Mr. Obama signed off on the suspension of some aid to Cambodia during last year’s political crisis. “Mr. Hun Sen…dreads the prospect of international isolation more than anyone else in Cambodia.”
Mr. Rainsy has touted the 2018 national election as the opposition’s best chance of coming to power in the two decades since the 1993 U.N.-led elections, and said that part of his reason for not returning last week was to avoid a series of events that might give Mr. Hun Sen a reason to cancel the election.
After four subsequent elections won by Mr. Hun Sen but dogged by accusations of electoral fraud, the CNRP signed off on a deal with the CPP last year to create a new bipartisan electoral commission and build a brand new voter registry to ensure a fair election.
In a video posted to Mr. Rainsy’s Facebook page on Saturday, he and Mr. Sokha called on the Cambodian people to remain patient while they travel abroad and work out the best time for Mr. Rainsy to return.
“On this occasion, I would like to appeal to all levels of leaders, activists and all Cambodian people to have confidence in the leaders of the CNRP,” Mr. Sokha said in the video, sitting next to Mr. Rainsy.
“We keep the same strong stance, we will not break up, and we appeal to brothers and sisters to continue joining with the CNRP to achieve our historic mission of rescuing our nation in the coming period.”